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2000s Archive

The Therapist at the Table

Originally Published October 2002
In the course of three weeks at America's most service-oriented restaurant, Bruce Feiler discovers an entire philosophy of life
The Therapist at the Table

For Gourmet Live's 2012 Restaurant Issue, we reprise this timeless account of the magic formula behind one of America's best-loved and most widely lauded restaurants, New York City's Union Square Cafe. The restaurant business is notoriously fickle, but a decade after this article appeared in the October 2002 issue of Gourmet magazine, Union Square Cafe remains a paragon of "enlightened hospitality."

Today, owner Danny Meyer has spun his flagship's success into a nine-restaurant empire—not counting his rapidly growing quality-burger chain, Shake Shack—and a catering company. And, no surprise, he essentially wrote the book on hospitality: Setting the Table, a 2008 New York Times best seller.

Bruce Feiler received a James Beard Award for the article that follows. Today, he is a New York Times columnist and the best-selling author of 12 books. His next, The Secrets of Happy Families: Surprising New Ideas to Bring More Togetherness, Less Chaos, and Greater Joy, is due for publication in February 2013. Since training and working at Union Square Cafe, Feiler gets grumpy in any restaurant, he tells us, "if I'm not greeted when I first sit down or if I'm sitting there more than 30 seconds without a menu, bread, or a drink order." —The Editors

In my first minute on the job, Table 31 caught on fire.

I had arrived at Union Square Cafe just before 4:30 on Saturday afternoon to begin work as a maître d'. "I would like to make a few announcements," said Paul Bolles-Beaven, the managing partner. "As usual, the Greens will be at Table 32. Remember, he likes to be seated immediately, and he didn't like the duck last time. The Dining In, Dining Out reporter from The New York Times will be here. And we misspelled 'Arctic Char' on the menu. If anyone notices, I'll pay for their meal."

At "family meal," the staff samples the night's specials, trades gossip, and reviews the guests. Their information comes, in part, from a new computer program called OpenTable System, a kind of digital know-it-all that allows the restaurant to track the reserving, eating, spending, and attitudinal patterns of every guest. It also notes special occasions, dietary needs, even deaths of longtime lovers.

Table 31 was a special occasion, a woman's 85th birthday. It had been booked for seven, a bottle of Champagne preordered. Flutes were polished and laid in place. A host led the family to the table, at which point a gentleman set a bouquet of flowers down on a candle. Whoosh! The tissue paper ignited and the entire bouquet burst into bright orange flames. The fire quickly reached three feet high, catching the tablecloth and threatening to spread. The guests surged backwards. A cry went up.

For a second, everyone froze, then the manager rushed down the steps into the dining room carrying an ice bucket. A guest dunked the flowers into the unmelted ice, and by then the staff regained its composure, began pulling out chairs, and hurried the party back upstairs. Despite a specific enjoinder in the training manual that states never, ever use a napkin or tablecloth to clean spills on the floor, several staffers smartly used a tablecloth to smolder the remaining flames. Cooks rushed forward with mops.

Meanwhile, the ice bucket with the floral carcass was sitting forlornly in the middle of the floor. "Feel! Think! Act!" I remembered the manager teaching me. I grabbed the bucket and hurried back to the kitchen. Out front, the table was being reset and a modicum of bewildered fascination had settled over the guests. They were having a New York experience.

"Does this happen all the time?" one of the guests asked me.

"I don't know," I said. "This is my first day on the job."

I was there to try and understand the inner workings of what Danny Meyer, who owns Union Square Cafe and four other restaurants, calls "enlightened hospitality." What do you do if you spill soup on a guest? Or if a guest rejects a $300 bottle of wine? I wanted to know if the tenets of elite hospitality would work if you took them away from an elite restaurant-and whether they might help me negotiate the inevitable spilt milk and broken plates in my own daily life.

I began by attending the meeting that Meyer convenes every five weeks for new hires to his 600-person staff. About two dozen employees-most of them decades younger than the 44-year-old Meyer-sat rapt as he told his St. Louis-to-riches story. "We are in business for only one reason," he says. "To create raves for the people with whom we have transactions. If the maître d' says to someone, 'How was everything?' and they say, 'Fine,' that was not a rave."

Meyer is a wiry, wired man with a genial smile and slightly bugged eyes who glides through his restaurants passing out compliments and commands in a manner that is one part shaggy dog, one part sly serpent, one part king of the jungle.

"What I have learned," he says, "is that I have an intense, nearly neurotic interest in seeing people have a good time."

Meyer was born to an arch-Democratic mother and an arch-Republican father, who alternately succeeded and failed as a travel agent and tour operator. Meyer calls himself a classic middle child, as well as an assimilated midwestern Jew. His father helped start a synagogue that was so Reform it held no bar mitzvahs, met on Sundays, and taught primarily ethics and Jewish cooking. He delivered his confirmation speech on the values of interfaith marriage, then married a Catholic.

Meyer opened Union Square Cafe in October 1985 at age 27. The restaurant, a New York take on an Italian trattoria, occupies a crowded yet airy space in the Flatiron District and began to earn a reputation based less on sizzle than on welcome and value.

"Three restaurants changed American dining in the last twenty-five years," says Richard Coraine, a former employee of Wolfgang Puck's and now a partner of Meyer's. "Chez Panisse introduced the idea of fresh food from market to table. Spago introduced the idea of a chef-owner at the front door making sure everyone had a good time. And Union Square Cafe combined those two ideas and moved them to New York."

In 1994, after years of vowing never to expand, Meyer opened Gramercy Tavern. It initially failed to live up to its hype, however, and Meyer sank to an incredibly low point. "I thought I'd made the worst business decision in my life," he says. "My dad went bankrupt-twice. Those talks he had with the family when I was young, he would be crying.... And now I was heading down the same road."

Meyer hired a "business therapist," who pointed out something that would change Meyer's life: Union Square Cafe was ranked 10th in the Zagat Survey for food, 11th for service, and was not even in the top 50 for décor. Yet the restaurant was rated the city's third most popular. "Union Square Cafe is far, far greater than the sum of its parts," the consultant said. "You must be scoring off the charts in something that Zagat didn't ask in its surveys." That something, they decided, was hospitality. Meyer and his team defined hospitality as what happens "when the people for whom you are providing it believe you are on their side," and Meyer went on to rank five core values that embody this vision: "1) caring for each other; 2) caring for our guests; 3) caring for our community; 4) caring for our suppliers; 5) caring for our investors."

Every gesture, every act, in a Danny Meyer restaurant is designed to fulfill these corny-sounding tenets, which make working there akin to joining a cult or the world's jolliest company softball team. They also make the job intensely and unexpectedly personal.

One of the more striking things about greeting people at an elite restaurant is how many customers come in unhappy, scowling at their partner or apprehensive about how they will be received. The hosts at Union Square Cafe know this. "All guests must be greeted within one minute," the manual states.


"I love that tie."

"Happy anniversary, Mrs. McCoy."

"You know it's my anniversary!" she beams. "Don't guess how many years."

Two seconds in the door and mission already accomplished. She and her husband will be back to celebrate next year.

I knew this at the door because of the elaborate codes built into OpenTable, a more efficient version of what for years they wrote by hand. R means "regular"; HB, "Happy Birthday"; Hanniv, "Happy Anniversary." One couple prefers a table by the window, another "doesn't like green olives." If a guest has been particularly obnoxious when booking, the computer notes this, too, with a curt NL-"Needs Love."

Though there is something Orwellian about all this information being stored in a computer, as a practical matter it tends to encourage the servers to think about each customer as an individual. Plus, it gives the staff esprit de corps: We know something you don't think we know. This is the unexpected brilliance behind Meyer's tenets. The customer does not come first; the staff does. Only by developing the proper atmosphere of congenial cooperation among themselves can they properly welcome anyone else.

The restaurant has a number of procedures designed to bring small pleasures. Those going to the theater get a card under their salt shaker to ensure speedier service. If it's raining, they'll give guests a free umbrella to take home. If guests are having difficulty deciding between two desserts, the server will often deliver their choice-and the other at no charge. "You are working for a company that is looking long-term at those kinds of decisions," Meyer tells recruits. "Not 'Oh my God, we gave away eight desserts.'" This system is even more striking when things go wrong. When a child dropped a Sprite in the bar, the entire family got new drinks. Meyer calls this "writing a great last chapter."

"The restaurant business, like every business, is a series of mistakes," he says. "If someone finds a small screw in their risotto, they're going to tell everyone they know. I can't change that. But what I can do is make sure that when they tell the story they go on to say, 'But do you know how the restaurant handled that?'"

To function in this system is to spend an enormous amount of time thinking about other people-not just what they need, but what they feel. Meyer says he hires people based 49 percent on technical skills and 51 percent on emotional skills. I quickly understand why: To work here is to discover your inner therapist. Those closing a deal will rarely look up; a couple on a blind date will practically beg for interruption. On my second night, I watched a young man and his date at Table 63. He gripped his glass a little too tightly and drank his cocktail a little too quickly. "He's clearly nervous about something," I thought. Later that evening he proposed to his girlfriend.

Sometimes, providing hospitality means providing a sympathetic ear. On Thursday, three twenty-something hipsters arrived in a limousine with three knockout blonds and were seated at Table 27. "Call girls," the host whispered. I was skeptical, until two of the girls-we dubbed them Brandy and Savannah-left Table 27 and draped themselves over two older gentlemen at Table 28. They soon began doing a standing lap dance (until the manager suggested that perhaps they might continue to enjoy their evening at their tables).

I approached one of the original Johns on his way back from the men's room. "Look," he said, when I asked him, per the manual, if there was anything I could do to make his evening more enjoyable, "we're both grown-ups. Things could be better, but as far as I'm concerned, they can talk with someone else, they can sit on the lap of someone else, they can kiss someone else, but at the end of the evening they're coming home with me."

Then he hugged me. I was on his side.

In many ways, being in an atmosphere of enlightened hospitality is like going to work inside your mother's fantasy of how the world should be. You stand up straight, smile, and say "please" and "thank you" a lot. You do this when you're tired, when you're annoyed, when your feet hurt so much you could cry, and when you can't believe the woman at Table 47 is wearing that halter top with that skirt. But you don't say anything.

To be a server or host at a top-drawer restaurant is to mind your p's and q's-for a living. (One of my proudest moments occurred when I seated a woman wearing a peanut-butter-colored bouffant the shape of the headdress on the Giza Sphinx. Another woman stepped out of the ladies room, took one look at the glazed helmet approaching, and nearly burst into guffaws. I resisted the temptation to flash her a conspiratorial smile, and proceeded as if I were seating an old friend.)

If anything, one develops a sense of pride at giving guests more than they expect. One evening, as I seated three Wall Street types, I overheard one saying, "Hey, did you read that restaurants are starting to turn tables faster?" I relayed this to their server, who said he would let them know they could stay as long as they wanted. We chuckled knowingly. This job is like the revenge of Goody Two-Shoes, I thought; you can tattle on someone and make their day at the same time.

"When you first start working here," said Lauren Glazer, a former singer turned manager, "you begin to realize that often the nicest things we do for guests are things they don't even know about."

In fact, the more I did for the customers, the more I became myself-cutting up, having short conversations, engaging. I liked the gamesmanship of it (So you don't like your table? Fine. I'll just walk back down, then up, then down those steps again carrying your FOUR Martinis, and give you a different table) and I liked the teamwork of it ("You just watched a guest give his date the Heimlich? What did you do with the regurgitated spinach?"). With the employees all acting like themselves-quiet or loud, friendly or reserved-the atmosphere in the restaurant becomes, well, democratic.

Over time, I began to see this atmosphere as something of a milestone. In Europe, the service model-particularly as it was exported to the U.S. in the form of stuffy French restaurants-has been one in which the server is superior to the servee. In Asia, the model is one in which the server is subservient to the servee.

But American service, like America itself, takes elements of European hierarchy, mixes them with a Protestant work ethic, then tosses in certain elements of our culture that we forget are revolutionary: equality, informality, social mobility, and, above all else, fun. It's hard to condescend to a server-or feel intimidated by one-when he or she could be your child, your neighbor, or even yourself back in college.

"In terms of value, the roles are equal," says Paul Bolles-Beaven, an effervescent, goateed sprite of a man whose wife, father, and father-in-law are all Episcopal priests. "The serving role is an honorable one. I'm slipping into Jesus mode here, but 'I am among you as one who serves.' "

And therein lies the secret: Good service, as achieved in America, is a dialogue between equals, where each side respects the other and goes away fulfilled-and served. If a guest wants to check a surfboard (as one did with me), he can. If a guest wants to return a $300 bottle of wine, he can (if it's deemed drinkable, it will be served at the bar). One night, I went to take a young couple waiting at the bar to their table. "You can settle your tab," I said, "or we'd be happy to transfer it."

"You can do that?" the man said.

"Most places don't let you," the woman echoed.

"Well, you're at Union Square Cafe," I said.

I relayed this story to Bolles-Beaven. "I don't understand why more restaurants don't do this. People are more important than policies." He smiled and spun on his heel, "Just another quotation from Chairman Paul."

On my last night, I went to seat two couples at Table 24, carrying two glasses of red wine they had ordered at the bar. After they were seated, I reached to place a glass in front of one of the women. As I did, I felt the glass remaining on my tray slide toward the table. This was the one situation I was most curious about when I started. What would I do if I spilled a glass of red wine down the back of the woman's yellow dress?

By this point, I had memorized the manual and knew the procedure. Try club soda. If that fails, try white wine. "If the stain still won't come out, offer a sincere apology, retain your composure, and tell the guest that we will gladly reimburse them for dry cleaning costs."

As it happened, I was able to right the tray at the last instant, and the glass didn't spill. My heart was beating faster, but as I walked to the front of the restaurant, I wasn't really scared, or panicked, at all. I was calm.

And that feeling, I suddenly realized, is the reason I had taken the job in the first place. It was the feeling of being prepared, of being in control.

"So," I said to Lauren Glazer, "the thing that one takes away from this environment is not the details of what to do when you spill soup on someone-"Glazer nodded. "It's the confidence that you can spill soup on someone and they still leave thinking they had the best night-ever. You can fall down, pick yourself up, and go on your way."

And you can feel better about yourself for how you handled the situation. Because in the end, you don't need your colleagues. You don't need Danny Meyer's Tenets for Happy Living. You don't even need your mother. You need the one thing none of them can give you.

"After saying I was never going to sing again, I recently performed for the first time in years," said Glazer. "And it was wonderful because I didn't do it for the applause; I didn't do it to please my mother. I did it for myself. And maybe if I had not come to Union Square Cafe, I wouldn't have known I could do that."

And that is the unspoken truth behind enlightened hospitality-it feeds the givers as much as the givees. Truly good service means that you're not merely serving your colleagues, your guests, your community, your suppliers, and your restaurant. You are also serving yourself.

Union Square Cafe, 21 E. 16th Street, New York, 212-243-4020